On May 10, 1774 King Louis XV of France and Navarre died after a reign of 59 years leaving the throne to his grandson who became King Louis XVI of France and Navarre. Tracking the fall of Louis XVI isn’t always easy because proving that one event caused another can be rather difficult to prove. However, there were a few things that do weight heavily in the direction of Louis’ downfall.
Louis came to the throne amidst many changes in Europe and France in particular. This was the Age of Enlightenment when things such as tradition and religion were being questioned in favor of reason, individualism and along with the scientific method were being explored with the goal of changing society. Skepticism and intellectualism were being praised as logic and empiricism was now the yardstick in measuring knowledge and wisdom. In France, the Enlightenment ideas were discussed in salons all over Paris and larger cities which culminated in the great Encyclopédie (1751–72) edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783). This historic tome was developed with contributions by leading intellectuals, notably Voltaire (1694–1778), Rousseau (1712–1778) and Montesquieu (1689–1755).
The ideals heavily influenced Louis’ early reign and he attempted reforms that agreed with these principles. These reforms included efforts to abolish serfdom, remove the taille, and increase tolerance toward non-Catholics. The reaction by the more tradition bound and conservative French nobility angrily opposed their implementation with great success. The failure to enforce his reforms increased discontent among the common people who felt that Louis should have been bold in his leadership when confronting the French Nobility.
During the early part of his reign came the American Revolution from Great Britain, France’s long time enemy. The American Revolution was also influenced by Age of Enlightenment ideals which Louis supported. From 1776 Louis XVI actively supported the North American colonists, by supplying troops, food and money. The French were very instrumental in assisting the colonies in their war for independence which was realized in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Although the French were triumphant against Britain, the ensuing debt and financial crisis contributed to the unpopularity of the Ancien Régime which culminated at the Estates-General of 1789 for the first time in over one hundred years.
Although Louis was favorable toward Enlightenment ideals he was still an absolute monarch and the principles of absolute monarchy were also well instilled within him and his queen, Marie-Antoinette. I could do a whole series on Marie-Antoinette and in the future I am sure I will. Louis married Marie-Antoinette when she was only 15 and he was 16. I am that placing these strangers together at such a young age contributed to their development. Part of the Palace system was living in isolation at court which helped them live lives cut off from the common people and their circumstances.
Maria Antonia Josepha was born an Archduchess of Austria, was Dauphine of France from 1770 to 1774 and Queen of France and Navarre from 1774 to 1792. She was the fifteenth and penultimate child of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Franz I. Was she the villain revolutionaries made her out to be? Was she a victim of her times? That is a question for another blog entry. The French people initially fell in love with the young princess from Austria, but after a few scandals and rumors of her extravagant lifestyle she became very disliked among the French population. As we shall see in the final chapter her greatest ‘sin” is that helped her husband and herself in their own downfall was the principles of absolute monarchy which helped place her and Louis so out of touch with the people and their times.